The French Riviera is probably one of the most scenic regions on our planet. Situated on the Southern coastline of France touching the Mediterranean Sea, the French Riviera offers the perfect blend of mountain and coastal beauty.
Every year, my wife and I try to ensure we do at least one beach holiday and this time we decided that destination to be Nice, Cannes & Monaco. We planned our trip for the August bank holiday weekend and since we had issues with our annual leave allowance, we could go only for three days, which the more we look back feels short. I would recommend spending at least 5-7 days to explore the place and have all the time to relax.
So, some basics before we kick into the details of our trip:
Currency: Euros (most urban areas accept card payments but would recommend keeping cash at hand for outdoor activities)
How to get there: Nice Côte d'Azur Airport is the main airport for the French Riviera region and has flight connections to almost all major European cities. For those flying in from Asia, there are also Emirates, Kuwait Airways and Qatar Airways flights from the Middle East.
Language: French. However, most people can speak basic English.
Recommended months of travel: April to October
Visa requirements: France is part of the Schengen visa programme.
To keep our travel costs to a minimum, we took the 5 pm flight from London Heathrow to Nice via Zurich. We had arranged a Hertz rental car from Nice airport. My personal view, hiring a car can be incredibly useful when exploring the French Riviera, since, the public transport and connectivity between the towns are relatively basic. The major challenge I faced throughout the trip was finding a parking space, especially in the Nice city center area. We spent at least an hour searching for a spot and finally ended up parking at a premium lot and paid around Eur 15 for the night (turned out to be cheaper than I thought!). By the time we arrived at our hotel, it was past midnight. We were dead tired and crashed out within a short while of checking into our room.
We stayed at the Campanile Nice Centre- Acropolis, a budget 3-star hotel. We were a bit disappointed with the room given on our first night. It was too hot inside, and the condition of the room was a bit below our expectations. We asked the hotel staff to give us another room which they were fortunately willing to accommodate for the next morning. The new room was a lot better and was on the 7th floor. We were quite satisfied with our stay from there onwards.
After a good night’s rest, we were fresh and eager to jump out of the hotel and start our exploration. Since we decided not to include breakfast in our hotel deal, we picked up some delicious chocolate brioche, sweet bread and best of all, freshly squeezed orange juice from a Monoprix outlet next door.
Next stop, Gorges du Verdon! Considered as one of the most picturesque spots in Europe, we had ensured we kept this high in our itinerary list. Bluntly, I am out of words to describe this place. You have to see it yourself to experience what I am attempting to say! But let me still try, imagine a beautiful gorge with clear turquoise water flowing between them? We were pleasantly amazed when we got the first glimpse of the gorge, and that is usually the typical reaction of any visitor.
Gorges du Verdon is about 150km from Nice or approximately a 2 hour 20 minutes drive. I would highly recommend leaving as early as you can in the morning to ensure you get maximum possible time to enjoy the outdoor activities available at Verdon, besides it does get quite crowded and therefore confusing to do the outdoor activity of your choice. We did a good 2 hours of kayaking, rowing through the gorge. Boy! What a view and experience that was, splendid. For those up for longer outdoor adventures, the activities range from rock climbing, slacklining, trekking in the gorge, highlining to paragliding.
By the time kayaking was over, we were starving and decided to try out a pizzeria near our parking called La Guinguette. Loved the ambiance and view from this restaurant. It added a very relaxed vibe to our trip. However, when you are in French countryside, bear in mind that not knowing French and being a vegetarian becomes a real test! 😉 Luckily, one of their staff did speak some basic English, and we managed to order a Vegetarian pizza and a bowl of mixed salad. Both were delicious and did full justice to our empty tummies. Do not miss out on their ice creams!
It was 3 pm by the time we got done with our lunch and we headed back for Nice. The journey took 3 hours, given the Saturday night traffic build up. On reaching Nice, as usual finding a parking spot took a while but in the end, we saw one about 10 minutes walk from the main city center and relatively close to our hotel. As it is in most European cities including Nice, from Saturday evening until Monday morning, the parking is free.
And now let’s switch our focus to the city of Nice. Founded in 350 BC by the Greeks, it was one of the busiest ports on the Ligurian coast. During most of the medieval age, it was often a victim of war due to the rivalries between Italy and France. As part of the Treaty of Turin, Nice ceded to France as a territorial reward for French assistance in the Second Italian War of Independence against Austria.
Back into the present day, we decided to kick off our evening exploration at the heart of its city center, Place Massena. Named after the French general from the Napoleonic wars, André Masséna, the square was built by Joseph Vernier in 1843. With a stunning Italian grandeur and an elegant lit-up, plus the vibrant atmosphere steps up your first impression of Nice to another level. Fortunately, you will probably cross Place Massena at least once a day since that is the real central point of Nice.
By the time my wife’s photography session was done at Place Massena (an hours worth at least!! – rolling my eyes), it was already 7 pm, and so we started looking for our next spot for dinner. Any guesses on what cuisine we ate? 😉 Your test on whether you can find a pattern in all our European trips so far! Haha, it’s Indian! But jokes apart, this is probably the best we have eaten so far. The taste still lingers in our mouth. The restaurant is called Namaste Nice India and is located in the underground shopping corridors of Place Massena. Trust me, do not go by the look and feel of the restaurant because once the food sits in your table (and later in your belly), you will attain nirvana. We ordered Rajma, Alu Gobhi, rice and chappatis and each of them were just delicious.
That meal was so energizing that it set us up for a full Nice by night walking spree. We kicked off by stepping further into Rue Massena, a street full of shops, buzzing restaurants and pubs and made our way towards Nice’s epitome boulevard known as Promenade des Anglais. In the shape of a necklace, it is a classic combo of coastline meets city life. To me, this was a wow factor. Initially, we thought we would only do a short patch of walking on the promenade and check if there were any beach parties we could gate crash, but the more we walked, the more addicted we got to the liveliness surrounding us. Though it was a Saturday night, be it roadside street artists or groups of friends and families at the beach or food vendors selling local delicacies, this was probably one of the most refreshing night walks I have ever done since Las Vegas. I still recall those specific moments when the full moon was out, and a gentleman was singing and playing some soothing guitar tunes. We ended up walking all the way up to “I love Nice” icon. On the way, you will find a lot of fancy bars facing the beach. Not surprising, they were fully booked. So make a reservation before you want to step in. Waka Bar is on one of the best! Also, if you are found of Bar crawling, there is tour called Riveria Bar Crawl & Tours, who arrange a fun group trip across all the famous bars and pubs in Nice with strangers!!
Next, we thought it was time to head back to our hotel after such a long and tiring day. So as we started walking towards what’s known as Vieux Nice (old city center). We were awestruck by the nightlife the city offers on weekends. Even though it was close to past midnight, restaurants and bars were crowded, to the extent that you may even struggle to find a table. And this is all in addition to the city’s architectural beauty built up of cobblestone streets and pastel-hued buildings. Our route included a few tourist spots such as Place Charles Felix, Palais de las Prefecture and Chapelle de la Misericorde.
Given the nightlife around us, we got tempted and decided to stop by for a sheesha break at Taj Mahal. Apple mint flavor plus the frozen pipe was a wise choice we made. After the sheesha, we were so tired and sleepy that we could barely walk to our hotel. Within minutes of accessing our room, we crashed flat out. We walked 20 km that day and drove 6+ hours, but loved every bit of it.
Having slept for more than 8 hours, we were now eager to start the next leg of our trip. Breakfast was on the go as we picked up some locally produced yogurt, chocolate brioche, and coffee from Monoprix. Our first stop for the day was Menton, situated on the Franco-Italian border. One of my all-time favorite driving routes and probably amongst the most scenic on our planet, the drive from Nice to Monaco or Menton is purely spectacular. I would recommend taking the La Grande or aka High Corniche Road which has some fantastic view spots and also captures a small portion of F1 Grand Prix race track. My only criticism here is that the road signs are quite weak and they don’t have clear guidance on which the touristic routes are and which are not.
Menton is famous for its beaches and gardens and has some of the best views of the Mediterranean coastline. We found the town quite affluent, especially with its high-end hotels, restaurants and chic fashion boutiques.
Lunch was at La Rotonde, an Italian brasserie on the Promenade du Soleil. Our table was beach facing, and the food was reasonably decent whereby we ordered a penne arrabiata and a vegetarian pizza. But again, that all comes from a veggie's perspective. We then took a walk on the promenade and around the city center. Due to lack of time, we couldn’t cover the important touristic sites, but some of the known checkpoints of Menton include Jean Cocteau Museum, Val Rahmeh Botanical garden, Saint Michel Basilica, Jardin de la Serre de la Madone garden, among many others.
We then headed towards our key center of attraction for the day, in fact, another sovereign nation, known as the Principality of Monaco. A constitutional monarchy, Monaco is considered as the wealthiest country in terms of GDP per capita and therefore making it the epicenter of wealth and prosperity.
We reached Monaco at around 3 p.m. and headed straight towards the most famous monument of Monaco called the Monte Carlo Casino. It is a must see monument, especially the architecture of the building, is truly unique. Behind the casino, you will also find some beautiful scenes of the Riviera. What’s more, some of the most exclusive cars are also often parked around the building. Ensure your camera is in ready mode! We decided to feel the place and decided to take a break and grab some coffee and ice cream at Café de Paris, situated right next to the Casino. Expensive but delicious stuff, trust me.
We then took a short drive around the central city area and made our way back towards Nice. Some of the other recommended spots to explore in Monaco include the Prince’s Palace, The Oceanographic Museum and several more. Given we had already used the High Corniche Road during our inward journey, we decided to go via the Low Corniche Road on our way back. This route has more villages and towns along the way and is closer to the coastline, but yet very picturesque.
At around 5 pm we were back in our room to change into our swimming costumes and hit the beach. Within 20 minutes we were in one of Nice’s most popular beaches, the Blue Beach. The water is clean and bright, a delight for anyone up for a dip. It can be a little tricky to find a spot on the beach during peak hours so be prepared for a short waiting time. Also, the pebbles can be a bit pinchy for the feet, but once you are in the water, you don’t feel it anymore. The beach offers several water sports activities as well such as parasailing, wakeboarding, kayaking, water skiing and more.
After soaking a few hours in the evening sun and taking a few relaxing dips in the calm, soothing waters of the Blue Beach, we headed back to our hotel to freshen up and explore our dinner options. We decided to try out a nearby Thai restaurant called Le Banthai. We ordered their pad thai and vegetarian green curry. The food was quite delicious overall.
Tired and exhausted after a long day full of activities, we were debating whether to call it quits or do our last pending item planned for the day- a night drive and visit to the Monte Carlo. And as expected, we went with the latter. 😊 We changed into our formal party wear clothing and drove off towards Monaco for a second time. The Monte Carlo casino building looks exquisite at night, especially the way it’s lit up. Upon arriving, we went inside the casino to see the reception and lounge area of the building, and I would highly recommend not to miss it if given a chance. The dome, the arches, the chandeliers, and the artwork are likely to dazzle you for a few minutes.
Playing at the Monte Carlo Casino however is quite expensive, and the minimum bets are only for the super wealthy. Instead, we went to the casino next door, Casino Café de Paris. My luck is usually quite dire with such games, so, my wife did most of the betting on the roulette. And guess what, she won €40! Yayy! We were back in our hotel at around 1 am, and deep into our dreams a few minutes after 1. 😊
On our final morning in Nice, we checked out of our hotel and drove towards Cannes by 9 am. Known for its Film Festival every May, Cannes is a quiet and relaxed coastal town about 30 minutes drive from Nice. Given the town hosts the best of international film fraternity every year, the hotels, restaurants, beach clubs/bars and cafes are all relatively high end and pricey.
Our key attraction in Cannes was Palais des Festivals et des Congres, but to our disappointment, the building was closed for visitors. What a shame. However, do not miss out on the handprints of several celebrities on the floor beneath you. I took my snap with the handprint of Sylvester Stallone. Aside from the palace, I would highly recommend taking a stroll on the Promenade de la Croisette, a more gentle version of the Promenade des Anglais in Nice. We also walked on Rue d’Antibes which is essentially the shopping street of Cannes.
We had to leave Cannes by 12 pm since our flight from the Nice airport was at 3 pm. On our way back, we took the coastal route which turned out to be a fantastic idea. You will find several beach resorts on your way and beautiful town centers of the French Riviera. It does take about 20 minutes longer than the motorway route, but if you have the time at hand, it is worth the extra time.
By 1 pm we returned our car and checked in for our flight back to London via Frankfurt. By the time we got home, it was close to 9 p.m.
The trip was over, but the memories will remain forever. Only regret that we didn’t take a few extra days to relax and enjoy some of the other beaches more. We had to end up doing a quick holiday in a relaxing place. Well, what stops us from going back again. 😉